As Kirk Cousins works through his initial season as the Vikings’ starting quarterback, there can be an inanity to the practice of marking his milestones: his first division game at Lambeau Field, his first prime-time game in Week 4, his first win over an NFC North opponent on Nov. 4, and so on.
That said, there’s a uniqueness to what Cousins will do on Sunday night at Soldier Field: As the quarterback tries to lead the Vikings back to the top of the division standings, he’ll attempt to do so as the foil for his favorite childhood team.
Growing up in Barrington, Ill., northwest of Chicago, Cousins developed an affinity for the Bears that continued after his family moved to west Michigan when he was 13. Mike Singletary was Cousins’ youth football coach; the quarterback went to school with Walter Payton’s kids and attended the youth camps Singletary did with former Bears defensive back and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier.
“There was close proximity to those guys; my dad did some chapels for the Bears,” Cousins said. “There were a lot of connections to the Bears and to the community, and obviously, the ’85 Bears, to this day, are still talked about quite a bit. That kind of lingered through the ’90s as I was growing up.
“Any time you get to go there, it’s a special place. There’s a lot of history there. I love the opportunity to play at Soldier Field.”
Cousins had played in Chicago twice before, leading the Redskins to wins over the Bears in 2015 and 2016. He’ll have a crew of his friends from Michigan in town for the game Sunday night, as he tries to become the first Vikings QB to win his first start at Soldier Field since Tarvaris Jackson in 2007.
If Cousins is able to keep his undefeated record there, it will mean success for the Vikings QB in a building where many of his predecessors had nightmarish outings.
Brett Favre threw for 321 yards in his debut, but the Vikings lost an overtime game that doomed their chances at home-field advantage in 2009. Favre threw three interceptions the next year in his final game there and Donovan McNabb lost his job to Christian Ponder in 2011.
Ponder went 0-2 as a starter in Chicago, missing a throw that would have sealed a win there in 2013, and in Teddy Bridgewater’s first start, a clock malfunction led the rookie quarterback to believe he only had time for one more pass, heaving an interception into the end zone with just under 2 minutes to play.
The Vikings’ Halloween night loss in Chicago in 2016 turned out to be Sam Bradford’s last game with Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator, and after the team’s ill-fated decision to start Bradford last year, the Vikings avoided a Monday night loss only after Case Keenum bailed them out in relief of the injured quarterback, who turned out to have thrown his last passes as a Viking in that game.
As Cousins tries to write a different story in Chicago, he’ll have to solve a defense that’s become one of the NFL’s most disruptive in 2018. The Bears, who traded for Khalil Mack at the start of the season, are second in the NFL with 24 takeaways, and are second in rushing defense, fourth in points allowed and fifth in sacks.
“They haven’t changed that much defensively, except for Khalil Mack, which adds to some of those poor throws and pressure,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
“Their defensive front is outstanding — I think Leonard Floyd is playing a lot better now. Their two corners are both very good. Eddie Jackson’s a little bit more of a ballhawk; since they’ve added him, I think that’s helped, and he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”
Cousins has only two turnover-free games this season (against the 49ers and Jets), and will have to be judicious with the ball against a Bears team that has scored a league-leading 89 points off turnovers.
“It’s something we have to be very aware of,” he said. “But I don’t know that I drop back saying, ‘Don’t fumble, don’t fumble,’ or ‘Don’t throw a pick.’ You still have to play. But you’re just aware that this is one of the ways they’ve been able to win some football games.
‘‘At this point in the year, it’s not a coincidence. It’s not an anomaly. It’s because they’re a good defense, and that’s what they do.”
If he’s able to help the Vikings get the better of the Bears defense and beat his favorite childhood team Sunday night, Cousins will leave Soldier Field with what might be the most significant milestone of his first year in Minnesota: a rare successful debut for a Vikings QB in Chicago, and a win that vaults them back to first place.
“We’ve talked about [for] several weeks now how it’s a dream come true, or a moment where you pinch yourself a little bit, to realize you’re living a dream,” he said.
“Certainly playing at Soldier Field on Sunday night football against the Chicago Bears is one of those moments, but I could go down every week and say every week is one of those moments, too. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”